Shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Goldsmith prizes this year, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy was sharply on my radar to read. I have not yet read Levy’s other books and so I was coming to this book fresh and willing to meet a new author to love.
Levy introduces us to Sofia, our narrator and protagonist, who has travelled to Algeria with her mother in the hope of having her mother’s undiagnosed illness cured by a curious doctor called Gomez who the reader understands practices unorthodox medicine but is never really convinced that he is actually a real doctor (well, I wasn’t anyway!). Along the way, we see Sofia fall in love with a woman and attempt, somewhat halfheartedly, at building a relationship with her father who left her mother when she was a child. We also start to learn of her mother’s illness which affects Sofia emotionally and, surprisingly, physically.
On the face of it, the story is quite simple. Essentially it is a story about a girl who is trapped by her hypochondriac mother in a state of co-dependance until she is stung by jellyfish (referred to as medusas in the book) which wakes her up from her (rather lethargic) passivity. However, Sofia is not awake long enough to do anything noteworthy. Instead, she decides to visit her father in Greece and meets her new step mum and baby sister. The feeling of alienation pulls her back straight into that passive young girl who does not know who she is or what she is. Sofia is having an identity crisis but cannot do anything about it.
You can probably tell that I was a little disappointed in this book. Levy is clearly talented as her writing gripped me for around three quarters of the book until I got to the point of thinking: where is this all going? I persevered until the end although I am not sure I was greatly rewarded for the effort to get there. For example, there are references to a person watching Sofia from afar. That person is never revealed and it is not clear whether those references actually added anything to the narrative (see my post on the Booker Readings 2016 where I note a clue as to the identity of said mysterious watcher Levy provided during her Q&A). Levy touches on loneliness, co-dependance, control, disappointment and abandonment but none of these concepts were developed together or deep enough for me to really connect with the book. There was almost too much going on ‘underneath the surface’ that there wasn’t a whole lot above the surface for the story to latch on to.
I know there is a lot of love for this book – let me know if you’ve read it and thought differently? Do you know who the mysterious watcher is? Did the clue help?
Recommended for: for those who enjoy a slow read
Favourite quote: “That night, I heard Papa singing to Evangeline in Greek when he put her to bed. My sister will have an ear for the language of her father…Truest love will be her first language. She will learn to say ‘Papa’ from an early age and mean it. I have more of an ear for the language of symptoms and side effects, because that is my mother’s language. Perhaps it is my mother tongue.”
Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!